IT IS MID-AUGUST. The leaping, laughing days of summer have skipped by and the lazy, hazy "dog days" have slunk into their place. A stuffy stillness descends upon the life of the church, as the dust settles after vacation Bible school, choir members skip town, and worship attendance sinks with the rising mercury. The preacher steps over half-empty-or half-full-suitcases to get to the study, settles into the chair, and opens the Bible to the lectionary texts for Sunday, August 11.
Here is the choice of texts: there is the Genesis 37 passage, in which Joseph's brothers sell him into slavery after a feigned murder caused by sibling rivalry run amok; or, there is the 1 Kings 19 text, which opens with Elijah crouched in a cave hiding from God, who sends rock-splitting wind, earthquakes, fire, and sheer, stunning silence to coax the cringing prophet into conversation; next, there is the Matthew 14 text in which Jesus takes a short-cut across the water and appears to his disciples to be a ghost. Why, this is high drama! This is the stuff of which musicals are made! A preacher could rouse people's attention with texts such as these.
Then there is this text from Romans, which comes in the middle of one of Paul's headiest theological discourses in which he wrestles with the question of God's lordship and the future, and Israel's place in God's gracious plan (Paul J. Achtemeier, Romans [Atlanta: John Knox, 1985], x).
There are no soaring hymns buried in the text, no Pauline ascriptions of praise to stir the soul out of its late-summer stupor. In fact, the limits of the text set by the lectionary chop the passage right in the middle of a passionate Pauline wind-up to a climax. This lectionary selection is weighty, reasoned disputation that the preacher and listener need to think their way through: in the unairconditioned sanctuaries of the summer, why bother? Why focus on this lectionary passage rather than the other selections, with their sensational lightscamera-action quality?
Because this is the "stuff" of the gospel. At the core of this text lies the existential question "what must we do to be saved?" How can things be put right with God? This is the fervent question plaguing the woman in the weekly Bible study whose husband never comes to church. It is the unformed question murmuring in the heart of the heartbroken parents who hobble to the state prison to visit their son. It is the question rippling through the ruling board's debate about the ordination of homosexual persons, the question weighing down the woman who lies in a hospice bed waiting to die.
"What must we do to be saved?" It is the question that is also rippling through the church in Rome, and weighing down the Jewish and gentile Christians to whom Paul addresses this letter. In a mixed congregation such as this, the question of what one must do to be counted righteous in the eyes of God hits close to home. Perhaps there are differing answers to this question circulating among the believers in Rome. Paul joins the debate in his letter to the Roman church.
"What must we do to put things right with God?" Israel's answer to this, says Paul, had been to "seek to establish their own righteousness" (v. 3) through their efforts to fulfill the law. With the best intentions, they had set out to win God's favor by doing everything the law required, hoping thus to become righteous before God. They had done this because Moses had taught, in Leviticus 18:5, that "the person who keeps the statutes and ordinances of the Lord shall live." That is, by trying really hard, one could keep all the commandments, then God would be satisfied, and the person would be saved-literally, escape the death penalty (Roy Harrisville, Romans [Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1980], 5).
I am reminded of a passage from the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, in which Franklin writes of a "bold and audacious project" he undertook at one point in his life. …